On the Care and Feeding of Young Rationalists

by MBlume1 min read13th Mar 200922 comments

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ParentingRationality
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Related to: Is Santa Real?Raising the Sanity Waterline

Related on OB: Formative Youth

JulianMorrison writes:

If you want people to repeat this back, write it in a test, maybe even apply it in an academic context, a four-credit undergrad course will work.

If you want them to have it as the ground state of their mind in everyday life, you probably need to have taught them songs about it in kindergarten.

There's been some discussion here on the formation of rationalist communities.

If you look at any large, well-established religious community, you will see an extraordinary amount of attention being paid to the way children are raised. This is hardly surprising, since upbringing is how new members enter the community. Far more people become Mormons because they were raised by Mormon parents than because they had a long talk with two guys in white shirts.

This doesn't seem to be the case in the rationalist community. Looking at how we all got here, I don't see all that many who were simply raised by rationalist parents, and had a leg up. Maybe this is a sampling bias -- a straightforward, enlightened upbringing is not as dramatic as a break from fundamentalist religion, and perhaps people don't think it's a story worth telling.

But I don't think we can count out the possibility that we're just not doing the job of passing on our memes. I can even see a few reasons why this might be the case. In mixed marriages, it is usually the more devout parent, and especially the parent from the more demanding religion, who has the say in raising the children. Thus, we see spouses convert to Catholicism, to Orthodox Judaism, to Mormonism, but rarely to Congregationalism, or Unitarianism. On this totem pole, atheism seems to be pretty much at the bottom.

And perhaps this also has something to do with the shyness of the atheist parent. Even in unmixed marriages, the unspoken thought seems to be "so, our children will become atheists just because their parents were atheists, just as Baptist children become Baptist because their parents were Baptist -- are we really any better?"  We resent the idea of the religionists forcing their foolish memes on their children, and want ours to choose their own paths. We think if we just get out of the way, our children will do whatever is right for them, as though by doing this we could make them the ultimate source of their lives.

We have to make choices -- doing nothing is still a choice. There is nothing wrong with attempting to light our children's way to wisdom which took us time and effort to locate on our own.

So, best practices, resources, websites, books, songs, nusery rhymes; anything that will help us to raise rationalist children.

(As always, please post one suggestion per comment so that voting can represent an individual judgment of that suggestion.)

(Disclaimer: I am not a parent, and am not remotely ready to become one. Nonetheless, I feel this could be a fruitful topic for discussion)

ETA: I hope it doesn't look like I'm simply asking how to raise atheists -- I'm setting the bar a bit higher than that. I speak of atheist parents in the latter part of the post simply because I have no data on avowedly rationalist parents. 

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Systematic application of the Socratic method seems to me a potentially fruitful approach. When a child asks you a "why" or "how" question, reply with a leading counter-question -- let the child try to form a hypothesis, then ask him or her to try to come up with ways to test the hypothesis, giving hints and tips along the way.

Get them reading. Babies love being read to. Introduce them to the beauty of books, and the wonders of the public library system. Then, when they have the tools to navigate the repository of written knowledge, set them loose. Steer a little, but don't interfere.

Parenting Beyond Belief and its sister blog The Meming of Life.

Site highlight: I'm So Glad You Asked in which the author lists interesting questions his children have asked him.

A member of the sampling bias embarrassedly raising his hand here. I'll go post in the other comments section, please don't yell at me ;_;

EDIT: Reading good science fiction, where the heroes win by being rational, might help.

I've also found this very helpful in my initial surveys.

The connection between fertility and religiosity should be mentioned. If the religious start having children sooner, or have more children, or have fewer individuals who never have children, then that could partially explain the claim that the irreligious are "not doing the job of passing on our memes".

In that case, it's not just about memes but about genes.

How big an impact do genes have on the potential of an individual to become a rationalist?

How big an impact do genes have on the potential of an individual to become a rationalist?

Too big. If rationality was reliably taught, it wouldn't require more-than-normal fluid intelligence to have a nontrivial probability of turning into a systematic rationalist.

On the one hand, there's some evidence that religiosity is partly heritable. On the other hand, this correlation between genes and religiosity is without manipulating the educational environment.

There's an apocryphal quote associated with the Jesuits: "Give me a child up to the age of seven and I will give you the man." Intense education would overwhelm the genetic factors.

One hopes. I don't know if it's possible to generalize on this point though. With some education takes, with some, it doesn't.

Far more people become Mormons because they were raised by Mormon parents than because they had a long talk with two guys in white shirts."

You seriously should have chosen a different sect, this is false for Latter-Day Saints. 70% of Latter-Day Saints are converts to the Church so not raised by LDS parents. For the most recent year there were 120,528 children born to parents that are LDS and 272,814 convert baptisms.

MBlume probably would have been more correct to say, "At least in the US, far more people self-identify as Mormons because they were raised by LDS parents than because they had a long talk with two guys in white shirts."

About two-thirds of official members are converts, but these numbers don't reflect active members. Because retention rates for new converts are around 25-50% after one year, it's plausible that any given active member is more likely to have been born in the church. The LDS-released statistics don't paint a good picture of who actually attends, but without other data, this is hard to answer one way or the other.

My mother always asked me, "well, what do you think?"

And its companion, "Hmm, what makes you say that?" If we just answer the question, sometimes we don't get to what the kid was actually wondering about. I'm remembering a six-year-old who asked me if I was going to have babies and how. Upon more questioning, she actually wanted to know if they would be born in a hospital or somewhere else, so I was glad I didn't try to explain sex to her.

[-][anonymous]12y 4

One of those things that's become a cliche because it's true: traveling is a great way to do this, at least at an age when children are old enough to rationally process the new information to which they're being exposed. The more different the destination culture from the host culture, ultimately the better. Lived experience provides information very differently than written, oral, or 2-D visual transmission of knowledge - not necessarily better or worse, depending on the context, but definitely with a valuable variety of perspective.

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Is it possible for anyone here to actually suggest anything that's truly meaningful in the context of raising children? We can say what we think is a good idea, but I think the first place to look for this information is in any population studies that have been done (adopted twin studies maybe?) about rationalist beliefs in people raised with different techniques. Then we'd still have the politically untenable task of randomly assigning the techniques we come up with to children and testing how rational the end up being. Maybe there's some insight to be had here, but I doubt we would have responses much better than chance.

Minor side point about the prevalence of switching to the more demanding religion: I think examples of that switch are more salient, but I doubt that they are more frequent, at least in the US. (And I'd generalize to the liberal West.) Individuals and couples soften their religious stances all the time, and it doesn't make the news. People seldom gossip about it, because it starts out as attending church less often or giving less money or joining other social circles or working longer hours. Eliezer is the rare example of someone who makes an extreme switch and makes a lot of noise about it. But "lapsed Catholics" is a minor trope because abandoning the faith you were raised in is common.

I wasn't raised explicitly atheist--that is to say, when I was young, no one told me, "God does not exist." (Though I could conceivably have overheard it when someone wasn't talking to me.) But I was also certainly not raised theist. And I was taught (via very aggravating, though now I recognize also useful, conversations with my dad) to have good arguments. If I said, "So, everyone X, right?" as the beginning to an argument, he'd say, "Oh? Why do you say that?"

I am some sort of a rationalist, although not perhaps as hard-line as some. I WAS brought up by rationalist atheists, and have discussed with my sister our mutual absolute inability to imagine becoming religious. While our parents' views were always explicit, they were not imposed. My wife's experience is parallel, and she is similarly perplexed by the idea of religiosity. I don't think rationalist parents need do more than love their childrn, and do their rational best to talk rationally to their children about issues that arise. I will say that I consider it irrational to deny the impact of irrational/unexplainable phenomena on our existence- perhaps virulent, foaming-at-the mouth atheism a la Dawkins might enegender a flight into religion in a damaged child.

You would be right if we had another two hundred years in reserve. But... we don't.

I'm not certain that I understand your point -- are you saying you expect a singularity/other catastrophic event before today's toddlers leave college?